I want to do two posts on this subject. Finding my identity and becoming proud to be a Christian AND a feminist was something which took a long time for me. It caused a lot of pain and made me really struggle with accepting myself. I've never been able to find too much on this subject in the blogosphere so thought I would tell my story here. It's pretty personal but I feel it may be helpful to some people and provide insight.
Gender issues and the church were never something I thought about very much when younger. In fact there are only three incidents which stand out, the first being my mum's reaction when it was decided that women could be ordained in the Church of England: 'It's about time!'. The second was a bit of a fuss at church one week because one (female) member of the congregation refused to take communion from a woman and the third was hearing that a (male) teacher at my school had become a Catholic due to his disagreement with the ordination of women. I wasn't the sort of teenager (and I don't expect there are many teenagers like this anyway) to delve deeply into scripture and theological issues; when I started attending a different church at the age of 18 the fact that there were no women in leadership positions there was not something I noticed. I was part of the youth group and so was never in the main meeting to hear the sermon so if they had ever dealt with gender issues, I wouldn't really have known.
All this changed when I went to university and joined the Christian Union, again something I hadn't really researched into and naïvely assumed was a group for all denominations and types of Christians. As it turned out, the CU was part of the UCCF and composed solely of evangelical students. Knowing what I do now I would not want to be involved with the UCCF if I was to go back to uni, but i digress. As you can imagine there was a lot of emphasis on relationships - often, I felt, to the point of obsession. But then that's not uncommon in an organisation made up primarily of 18-21 year olds. At a seminar on relationships I heard, for the first time, the concept of the woman as 'helper', in submission to men and also the 'equal but different' mantra which always has and always will unfortunately remind me of Separate But Equal.
It was clear to me that the 'woman as helper' idea was very important to the CU in the context of relationships and marriage. It wasn't long, however, before I started to feel completely disillusioned with what I was hearing. I had started going to a church in my university city - part of the same group of churches as my home church. One Sunday, a woman who was being welcomed into the church was giving her testimony and talked about the fact she had had to overcome her belief that women could preach or be in leadership and that she now knew this belief was incorrect. I was deeply confused. I didn't understand why it was incorrect or why the woman had to change her beliefs. At this stage in my life I was starting to become interested in feminism but my thoughts on the matter extended to little more than a rejection of 'raunch culture' and 'I think men and women should be equal in all things'.
So I went home and started looking into it all. I discovered that the church movement I had been part of for a year did not permit women to hold leadership positions on their own or preach to men. I read into the reasons for this and what various people thought about the matter. For the first time I found the terms 'complementarian' and 'egalitarian' (I hadn't yet looked into Christian Feminism). I knew that I fell on the 'egalitarian' side of the debate but it began to worry me. Was I wrong to feel this way? Did it mean I was going against scripture? As it happened, I was dealing with other personal issues at the time and these worries ended up taking a back seat for a couple of years. I moved around a lot for university, college and work so my attendance at church was sporadic and I never really settled into one place. I had decided not to continue attending the church I had first found at university for a number of reasons. I often went to church with my fiancé when I went to visit him at university, but again I felt very unsettled there - almost as if I didn't fit in. I started to get the feeling that the church was not for women like me.
I must stress that this experience came from attending CU meetings and two churches while I was a student/young adult. When I use the term 'women like me', I mean that I felt my personality and interests were out of place somehow. The people I encountered in these years seemed to fit a certain mold which I did not. I met some lovely people but at the same time i frequently felt uncomfortable, as if I couldn't be myself. My faith was not affected - I knew I was a Christian and nothing would change that, but I began to feel increasingly ill-at-ease in church. It didn't help that in searching for enlightenment on the issue, I had come across many hardline complementarian websites and blogs which I found made me angry and upset. There was much talk of 'the poison of feminism'. Since feminism had recently impacted my life in a huge way (for the better, I might add), it did nothing to help me out. All this probably came to a head in 2007, when I was newly-married and definitely identified as a feminist.
What happened next will be detailed in Part Two.